The Role of Migration in Resilient Cities

By Carla Bruni, Associate for Engagement with Heritage Strategies International
A main goal of the New Urban Agenda is to provide a roadmap for achieving safe, inclusive, sustainable and resilient cities, worldwide. In the wake of the largest wave of migration since World War II, many urban centers grapple with how to respond to the needs of outsiders when they are already burdened with troubled economies and limited resources. As refugees and migrants continue to flood into these entry points, tensions around the world have increased and fears have begun to magnify. Many U.S. and European cities in the center of this new reality are already struggling with aging populations, the emptying of their historic centers, outward migration of economically active populations, and a lack of economic opportunity. However, in the midst of these new realities, research and international forums are beginning to uncover how the very migrants who are seen as expediting the decline of these urban areas may actually be a solution and path towards resiliency.
Growing tensions
As the U.S. endures another 2-year-long presidential campaign season—likely the longest electioneering period in the world—rhetoric about immigration continues to dominate speeches and commercials without any signs of slowing. There are chants to build a wall across the land that borders Mexico, and anti-immigration rhetoric is growing harsher, especially in rural areas that have been hit hard by economic downturns during the past decade. One common perception is that migrants may take what few jobs are left, perhaps because they may be willing to accept lower wages. Beyond this, there is also a growing sense of nationalism and a general fear of cultural shifts and the unknown.
These perceptions are not unique to the U.S. In the past year, anti-immigration riots have flared up from Russia to Zambia to Italy and South Africa. In February, a refugee center was torched in the Czech Republic. Almost no corner of the earth has been untouched by protests and violence brought on by cultural clashes and fears of being economically overburdened by refugees. It is true that such massive numbers of migrants can put strain on a city’s resources and service agencies, but it is also true that many perceptions about shifting populations are not supported by the research and statistics gathered by those who study it. What this research indicates is that cities are inextricably tied to diversity and migration—in fact, they are often created by it.
Labor markets and economic growth
Urbanization itself usually requires migration of some kind, as the current high levels of urbanization have not been achieved solely by an increase in the birth rates of existing populations, but due to migration between countries and rural and urban areas. The major cities of the industrialized world tend to have very diverse populations, and developing nations are drawing migrants from all over the world to grow their workforce and skill levels—these large cities are recognized as important interchanges in the global economic system because of their connections with international financial markets and multinational corporations. In fact, cities are classified according to their degree of integration within the global economy. Rankings from 2014 show that the top 20 global cities in the world are fairly evenly split between Europe and the Americas. It stands to reason that cities so dependent on international relationships are by nature diverse and will not thrive through an overly nationalistic lens or by resisting multi-cultural inclusion.
According to research done by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, migrants accounted for 47% of the increase in the workforce in the United States and 70% in Europe over the past ten years. They also fill important jobs in both fast-growing and declining sectors of the economy, and like the native-born citizens, young migrants are better educated than those nearing retirement. Migrants also contribute significantly to labor-market flexibility, especially in Europe.
These and other labor statistics may be why the mayors of many American cities—especially large, diverse cities like Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Boston—have been welcoming refugees and fighting  governors who have done their best to block refugees from entering their states. Mayors of large- and medium-sized cities understand that urban areas are dependent on migration and are therefore less likely to take a simplistic or short-term view. Mayors are also likely aware that migrants contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits and that they have the positive impact on the public purse.
Population gain
Migrants have also helped—in a substantial way—to reverse population decline in cities. In the US, cities like Chicago (and its surrounding suburbs) have taken in over 600,000 immigrants over the past several decades, doing much to offset the loss of over 900,000 local residents. In Utica, New York’s old industrial center, the migration of Bosnians, Burmese, Somalis, Vietnamese, Iraqis and others has put a tourniquet on population decline. This has not gone unnoticed, and currently 18 of America’s “Rust Belt” cities—cities in America’s once powerful industrial sector that are now suffering from economic decline, population loss and urban decay—have established programs to attract and empower refugees to help fill empty buildings and grow the workforce. As of last year, immigrants have added USD 3.7 trillion to the housing wealth in the United States. Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at both the Brookings Institute and the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, summed up this phenomenon by arguing that cities need two things to stay strong: economic activity and population. Refugees provide both.
Like in many US cities struggling with a population decline, European countries like Italy and Germany are seeking migrants to bring new life and industry into their cities. This may be especially important for European cities because their populations skew older than most of the rest of the world due to declining birth rates and because many younger adults are leaving their home countries for work in other parts of the world. Simply put, many once-thriving places are dying. Now, hundreds of thousands of young people are risking their lives to enter a region where the population is older than in almost any other place on earth. According to data compiled by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, 81% of the 689,000 people who had formally applied for asylum in EU countries this year (through August) were younger than 35; more than half (55%) were ages 18 to 34. This will no doubt go a long way to strengthen the resiliency of cities that require not only more bodies to do the work that an aging population can no longer do, but where innovation and fresh ideas are crucial for the economic survival of the area. Historic cities and settlements are also recognized as models for sustainable development due to their walkability, density, and adaptability. Migrants create demand for historic structures that, in many cases, have sat empty for years. The introduction of new populations into inherently resilient buildings and urban centers increases the chances for these cities to survive twofold.
While migration offers numerous solutions to cities struggling with a loss of population and economic stability, an influx of migrants alone will not create competitive and resilient cities. Challenging social cohesion can create segregation and heightened racial, ethnic, and religious tensions. Struggling cities must realize that they need diversity to stabilize and grow again, and this will require the inclusion of migrant voices when putting forward national and local agendas. Fortunately, there is some progress in this direction. This spring, the European Commission convened a round table of mayors and political representatives from several European cities to discuss ways to strengthen the integration and roles of migrants in their cities. This sharing of information could be used to improve EU policy and funding priorities. In the U.S., programs have been adopted in some areas to help with small business incubators and multilingual business services as well as education, social integration, and civic participation, and the mayors of cities continue to battle for the right to accept more refugees and welcome them into the urban fabric of a country—a country created by immigrants searching for a better life.

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